Written by JJ Barnes
The “Death of the Mentor” is a technique used in story to motivate the Protagonist, by killing the person who has taught them to do what it is they do. It’s a well-used trope, and thus must be used with awareness and caution to avoid predictability, but it can still work really well. I’ll talk you through what it means, what it does for your story, and how you can make it work in your own writing.
Obi Wan Kenobi
The classic example of the death of a mentor being written for this purpose is the death of Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.
Luke Skywalker meets Obi Wan Kenobi who teaches him what The Force is and how to use it, about his family, etc., and then gets killed by Darth Vader which motivates Luke to do better throughout the rest of the film. Prior to the death of Obi Wan, Luke was unable to complete is story journey. Forcing Luke to stand alone without the support makes him stronger.
It’s probably to blame for the trope becoming cliched because of how effective it was at the time, but it’s also a really good demonstration of how and why it is used.
The frequency of use, and fame of this trope, makes it easily parodied. In The Office, Michael Scott’s movie, Threat Level Midnight, features the death of a mentor in a perfectly done parody.
Cherokee Jack, played by Creed Bratton (played by Creed Bratton), is Michael Scarn’s ice hockey mentor. He killed by the antagonist, Golden Face, three quarters of the way into the film. This then propels Michael Scarn towards the climax with purpose, forced to stand alone without his help.
The reason the death of this character is such a perfect parody is because as well as being a perfectly executed joke, it’s also a really clear and well-constructed example of how to write it in your own story. When Cherokee Jack dies, it motivates Michael Scarn perfectly to accomplish his goals in a way he previously felt unable to.
I would genuinely recommend seeking it out and watching it just to see how well structured it is and how the death of the mentor is used, whilst acknowledging it is a clear parody and very funny with it.
Where Do You Use It?
If you’re writing in a three act structure, the death of the mentor is best placed at the end of the second act. It will then send your Protagonist on their path to accomplish what it is they want to accomplish in Act 3, in a way they didn’t feel able to do prior to their mentor’s death.
Even if what they set out to do ends in defeat, they were not previously motivated sufficiently or feeling capable of even trying until this happens.
How to Write “The Death of the Mentor”
Being such a well-known trope can make using it something of an issue. Your audience is likely to see it coming and therefore it will have probably less impact, unless you can really make them feel.
To make the most effective death of a mentor, aim to cause the absolute maximum pain you can. This will stop your audience thinking about the cliché, because they’ll be too busy feeling their emotions.
I have written the death of a mentor in my own writing (Lilly Prospero and the Magic Rabbit), and I made the choice to deal with the cliché by causing the reader as much emotional devastation as possible. It draws the focus away from the predictability because your reader is too busy coping with their pain.
It sounds evil, but it’s effective, and allows you to have the impact of it in your story without it being ruined.
Another method you could use to get over the cliché factor is, instead of a literal death, have the mentor be lost to your Protagonist in some other way. They could be taken away emotionally, so your Protagonist now feels alone.
Why Does “The Death of the Mentor” Work?
The mentor character is very common in fantasy stories, because your Protagonist needs a guide to explain the magical world they’re now in and teach them about the powers or magic of that world. When that mentor is taken away, it then forces your character to stand on their own two feet in this new world they’re adapting to.
In whatever way your mentor is lost to your Protagonist, losing that support and that guidance is what gives them enough motivation to finally take the final steps they need. It could be to avenge their death or prove them wrong, or it could be to live up to the faith the mentor had in them to honour their memory.
But either way, that loss takes your Protagonist through the transition from unable to go for their final goal, into willing to do it. You just need to be aware that you’re treading footsteps previously trodden and it’s very easy to slip into predictable cliché if you don’t handle it with care.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose